Starting the season with one finals team (Milwaukee) and finishing with the other (Phoenix), Torrey Craig’s journey in the NBA over the last eight months has been winding, to say the least. With the Bucks, from suffering a nasal surgery and tweeting out a cryptic emoji when he didn’t play for three games after being cleared for action to adapting to a mask he says messed with his reaction time and peripheral vision, Craig never quite found his fit.
At his best, he showed off his skills as a chasedown artist, demonstrated his versatility as a defender by taking the primary assignment against his old teammate Jamal Murray, and blew up opposing offensive possessions at random alongside, and in tandem with, Jrue Holiday, but he wanted for consistent playing time, logging more than 20 minutes only once, and eventually lost his spot in the rotation to Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s more pronounced all-out effort before being traded to the Suns for cash considerations.
To be fair, some of the trouble may have been his role in the offense — or lack thereof. For the most part, Craig rarely has plays run for him, but he can struggle at times to move in-sync with his teammates, which was arguably more pronounced on a squad that required him to work the dunker’s spot, manufacturing angles for drop-off passes and knowing when to get out of the way, rather than simply spacing out to the perimeter around multiple guards, like he did in Phoenix. Of course, while it didn’t necessarily impact his ability to stay on the floor as much the season prior with the Nuggets, his internal GPS issues also popped up now and again in Denver, particularly during the Western Conference Finals.
Take a look at this possession from Game 2, for example. After making the post-entry pass to Paul Millsap, Craig should be spacing to the wing, not hiding behind Jamal Murray and taking a cut that isn’t his.
As was the case at times with the Bucks, notice how Murray can be seen attempting to point his teammate in the right direction.
In the end, because the 6-foot-7 wing is almost on a different wavelength from his team, Murray can’t slice to the basket cleanly from the 45-degree angle, nor can Nikola Jokic lift to the top of the key as a release valve.
So what, right? Craig wasn’t signed to replace what the Pacers lost in Doug McDermott as an off-ball mover; he’s being added, most likely, with the intention of offering some of what Thaddeus Young brought to the team a few years ago as an unselfish role player with the physical tools to move his feet in space and perhaps stay in front against multiple positions. Still, an underrated aspect of Thad’s game during his tenure in Indiana was his ability to fill gaps and balance the floor with positioning in spite of his so-so shooting.
With that in mind, look back at that possession against the Lakers. The reason Millsap is being swarmed in the first place is because the only players who are being guarded for the Nuggets are Murray and Jokic. Likewise, as can be seen below, the Bucks also didn’t seem too bothered by Craig shooting open threes during the Finals.
Of course, given that the 6-foot-7, 220-pound wing shot 36 percent from three with the Suns on 2.6 attempts per game, defending him with soft closeouts was somewhat of a risky gamble on behalf of Milwaukee, but it also underscores why he needs to improve his feel around the gravity of his teammates — especially in lineups with Sabonis, which arguably will be more similar to his role as shown in that possession with Denver.
In that regard, even if the Lakers pulled a Bucks and didn’t respect him as a “real” three-point threat, sliding over the hash mark at least would’ve given him a chance at an open bucket. Or, better yet, created space with player movement for Murray or Jokic to receive the pass instead. For that reason, Craig’s ability to stay on the floor as a defensive specialist and plus-offensive rebounder for the Pacers shouldn’t so much be seen as a factor of whether he hits enough threes, but rather what else he does, specifically when he isn’t shooting (i.e. relocating after setting a screen or making a pass), to avoid spoiling spacing.
From the outside, there’s no way to know for sure why Craig didn’t manage to carve out a steady role for the Bucks even as Thanasis, who made a total of seven threes on the season, gradually took his minutes; however, though the 30-year-old wing averaged more fouls per 36 minutes (4.3) than made field goals (3.2), he still managed to put together some defensive plays that stand in stark contrast to what options the Pacers had last season.
For example, here is a side-by-side of Craig defending the same player and action as the Pacers. In the first clip, notice how Brogdon gets clipped by the ball screen as Jokic rolls into the accidental under, creating a wide open three. Now, look at Craig, who not only skirts over the screen from Jokic out of the dribble hand-off, but also turns the ball into necessitating a re-screen before inducing a pass with a side-contest from mid-range.
No one with that degree of size or strength was doing that for the Pacers last season, let alone demonstrating the ability in the same body to hassle Paul George with ball pressure and denials, as was the case with Phoenix in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
Overall, Craig isn’t perfect as a defender. He has a tendency to pick up fouls when he gets jailed, and he doesn’t quite have the heft to hold up when stockier or more athletic fours go at him from the elbows or the block. That said, following a season in which the Pacers gave up big games to wings like Mikal Bridges (season-high 34 points), OG Anunoby (season-high 30 points), and Harrison Barnes (season-high 30 points), there will clearly be value in at least having the flexibility to more feasibly switch 1-4 or mix-and-match defensive assignments between Brogdon, Craig, and Warren in certain lineups, with the latter two capable of defending on-ball in spots when the former would struggle to stay attached.
Whatever the case, Torrey Craig may not turn out to be what the Bucks ultimately got from P.J. Tucker as a gritty, veteran leader covering everyone from Kevin Durant to Devin Booker with the capability to chip in with the occasional hot streak from the corners, but if he can better match his offensive rhythm with that of the team, he at least has a chance, amid a roster loaded with combo guards and bigs, to replace some of what the Pacers once had in Thaddeus Young as a portable defender, albeit in a smaller, bench role.